I first met Denise Dee Haines when she accepted our older son Gabriel into kindergarten at the Classroom on Carpenter Lane (CCL), the mixed-grade classroom in her home. I was struck, then and throughout Gabriel’s four years in CCL, by Dee’s careful attention to our child and her deep understanding of his gifts and challenges. Gabriel LOVED going to school at CCL. He loves Dee, and at age 30, still considers her one of his best teachers. Being seen, known and challenged to grow…and yes, being loved, were important building blocks for his life-long quest for knowledge.
At a turning point in my clinical psychology career, during the final year of our younger son Greg’s time at CCL, I asked Dee if I could be her assistant teacher, because I wanted to watch how she worked. Spending whole school days with Dee, I came to appreciate her genius in detail, and I felt called to understand and share her strategies. I tried to write about Dee and her classroom, but words failed me. I sensed that a film could show more than I could say. The following year, while still working for Dee, I began to work towards specialization as a school psychologist, to build a credible platform for speaking about the education of young children.
The idea of a film stayed with me, but the time wasn’t right until Dee told me that she was planning to retire from full time teaching in the spring of 2005. During the last year of Classroom on Carpenter Lane, I spent every Wednesday at school with a mini digital video camera making myself invisible. The following year, having shot 75 hours of footage, I accepted a full time position as a school psychologist with one of the largest urban school districts in the country, and I began in earnest the challenging task of learning how to help teachers.
This film took shape with the support of our younger son, Greg Windle, who helped me find the narrative arc in my material. He also helped me learn to use the editing program (Final Cut Pro 5). Ten years after CCL closed, Greg and I were able to interview several CCL graduates as they approached the last year of high school.
My hope for Empress of Everything: Messages from a Master Teacher is that teachers and teachers-in-training can use this glimpse of CCL as a point on their compass, a direction to head in while refining their own artistry. Designers of primary schools might notice how the structure and routines in each school day can build a supportive community of learners. In more grandiose moments, I hope that the model provided by the Classroom on Carpenter Lane encourages administrators and governing bodies of educational systems to see benefit in small class sizes for children during their early years at school.
(photo of Wendy by Greg Windle)